Backstory: Mutiny on the Norfolk
It's just a subtropical dot barely visible on a map. Its nearest neighbor is 500 miles away. First settled by mutineers, Norfolk Island remains as peculiar as it is small. Cows are given the right of way on rural roads. It has the only telephone directory in the world that lists people by nickname. Many islanders speak their own language, a singsong mix of 18th-century English and ancient Tahitian.Skip to next paragraph
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Now this volcanic speck in the South Pacific is embroiled in a David-and-Goliath fight to maintain its coveted distinctiveness. Officially a territory of Australia, Norfolk Island is clashing with Canberra over the right to manage its own affairs. It has enjoyed special autonomy and its own legislative assembly since 1979. But Australia, citing security concerns and the threat of international terrorism, wants to claw back some of the island's jealously guarded powers of self-government.
Call it Mutiny on the Bounty, Part II. Some of Norfolk Island's early settlers were descendants of the notorious mutineers on the British schooner the Bounty. In 1790, the insurrectionists, led by Fletcher Christian, overthrew the tyrannical Captain Bligh and fled with their Tahitian lovers to Pitcairn Island, where they remained undiscovered for 18 years. Overcrowding forced them and their many children to relocate to Norfolk Island in 1856.
Now many of the island's 1,900 inhabitants are feeling restive again. Australia wants to wrest back control of immigration and customs, in particular, as part of its effort to reengage with its long neglected South Pacific backyard since 9/11. The region has been referred to by strategists as an "arc of instability," and fears endure that failing states could be vulnerable to human traffickers, drug smugglers, and terrorists.
Last month Canberra sent 470 extra police and troops to the troubled Solomon Islands to quell violence in the aftermath of a contested election. In the past five years, Australian police officers and public servants have been placed in senior positions in countries such as Fiji, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea. "It's part of our overall review of border control and the security of Australia," says the minister for the territories, Jim Lloyd. "It's not that Norfolk Island poses any specific risk, but we want to bring it into line with the rest of the country."
At the same time, Australia says the island is unable to raise enough revenue and faces bankruptcy within two years. Islanders pay no income tax; the government instead raises funds through a customs duty on all imports.
In parliamentary reports and letters to the islanders, Australia has set out two scenarios, the most radical of which would result in the island's tiny legislative assembly being stripped of its powers and reduced to a local council. Islanders would have to start paying income tax, which they claim would hurt businesses and harm tourism, the main employer. A group of islanders has launched a challenge of Australia's authority to the High Court in Canberra.
"I don't want to see the people here forced into something they don't want to do," says Ian Wilford, an autobody repairman who moved here from New Zealand five years ago. "This is a wonderful place to live, and I don't want to see it ruined."
Norfolk was once home to a convict settlement renowned as the most savage in the British Empire. The island now has its own flag, stamps, customs service, and international telephone code. It lies closer to New Zealand than Australia, and Australians have to carry their passports when they visit. Furious locals say that Canberra has no right to interfere in their affairs because in 1856 Queen Victoria bequeathed the island to their forbears.